Saudi women gain status -- slowly

A full generation after the discovery of oil, the women of Saudi Arabia still are expected to stay off the streets and to be neither seen nor heard except within family groups.

When Saudi women do go out, they cover up with the veil and the black, shapeless head-to-toe garment that renders them theoretically "invisible." And when they leave their houses, they invariably are accompanied by their "maharam" -- their male protector.

However, the possibilities for female participation in Saudi Arabia's economic life soon are to be enlarged, according to a recent decision by the Saudi government. In a country where Islamic law is strictly applied, this appears to be a revolutionary decision.

Saudi officials maintain that modernization does not have to endanger traditional social structures. "Look at the youths we have sent abroad to study ," says a Cabinet member.

"They all come back having sampled the good and the bad of the West. They come back but don't opt for Western clothes. They fall back into the old tracks and traditions; they respect the elderly and take a Saudi woman as their wife."

Moreover, these officials point out that social change is a slow process in Saudi Arabia. At the Ministry of Planning one official recalls that five years ago there was a shortage of teachers. With the approval of King Faisal, two fathers were asked if they would allow their daughters, who had just graduated, to teach.

The girls were offered high salaries, and their fathers were told that they would be allowed to appoint a trusted driver to ferry their daughters to school and back again.

The fathers, however, refused, asking: "How could we face our neighbors if we are living off our daughters?"

Social changes in Saudi Arabia are, nevertheless, undeniable. Foreigners in Riyadh now are regularly visited not only by Saudi men but also by Saudi couples. Saudi women often take off their veils upon entering their host's house.

The country's recent economic development underlines one of Saudi Arabia's most serious problems -- the shortage of both skilled and unskilled labor. This forces the kingdom's political and religious leaders to choose between two evils: more imported foreign workers or a more liberal policy on the employment of Saudi women.

Government offices built in the past two years feature a novelty for this desert capital, the most conservative of Saudi Arabia's power centers: women's restrooms. Some residents offer a simple explanation: Most of Riyadh's new government offices were designed by European architects.

Nevertheless, officials at the Ministry of Planning now are debating how women can be given a larger role in the country's economy without violating the Sharia -- the Islamic code of law. This poses a serious problem in a country that is having rapid economic growth but that nevertheless clings frantically to its traditional social structures and value systems.

In Saudi Arabia's towns and cities, the middle and upper classes live with the best and latest products the West has to offer. Housewives have the developed world's labor-saving devices.

Yet, unlike in the West, increased leisure for Saudi women does not mean the chance to develop a chosen career. It means more time to spend at home.

Saudi women may not drive under any circumstances. They may not take taxis alone or with other women. They are not expected to appear in government offices, public places, or markets except under extreme circumstances.

The status of women in society has always been a controversial subject in the kingdom. Last month, Saudi newspapers were once again forbidden to publish pictures of women. Political observers here view this as a concession by the royal family to the ulema, the country's religious leadership.

In the wake of last year's attack on the Grand Mosque in Mecca, the Muslim scholars are said to be extremely apprehensive about the rate of modernization in Saudi Arabia.

Education for women has been an uphill fight, a story of government success against grave obstacles. Opposition was so great in the early 1960s that the late King Faisal opened some of the first girls' schools under military protection -- because traditionalists believed a community school would corrupt girls and weaken their faith.

Girls see time and money lavished on boys' sports while they are not even permitted physical education classes.

Political observers cite domestic reasons for possible changes in the status of women. They point out that the stream of foreign workers -- both from Muslim and non-Muslim countries -- is viewed by many members of the closed Saudi society as a potential danger.

They believe that the attack on the Grand Mosque in Mecca has possibly pushed the Saudis toward a stronger emphasis on women's employment. Earlier this month , the first all-women branch of a bank was opened.

Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia's rapid economic development brings aspirations the kingdom's strict religious society is not yet ready to cope with.

"It can't go on like this much longer," says a young educated woman. "Some of us want to work at different things, we want to drive, and we don't want to wear the veil. But we don't want to hurt our families or go against our religion.

"I see a lot of tension among my friends," she added.

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